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US President Donald Trump: The Great Experiment

Trump’s presidency is turning into a stress test for American democracy and the world order. Hanns W. Maull identifies three factors that may play a role in the way this experiment unfolds.

Point of View, 25.01.2017 Forschungsgebiete

Trump’s presidency is turning into a stress test for American democracy and the world order. Hanns W. Maull identifies three factors that may play a role in the way this experiment unfolds.

As the 45th President of the United States takes office, a colossal sociological experiment begins – the greatest our young century has seen so far. It will test just how resilient political systems are. At stake is the future of politics, among other things.

The experiment is broadly divided into two tests. The first concerns the resilience of American democracy under circumstances where power is massively concentrated in unreliable hands. In the past decades, the US has rarely seen such a clear distribution of power as today, with Donald Trump in the White House and clear Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress as well as the chance to use new appointments to the Supreme Court to set it on a conservative course for the long term. Moreover, the new President is likely to use all possible leverage to expand his powers further. Donald Trump does not run his corporation as a modern, publicly listed company, but as a family firm with an unchallenged pater familias who demands loyalty above all. It is to be expected that he will rule the United States of America in the same way. And it is doubtful whether the oath he has taken on the American Constitution substantially changes his political motivations or moral compass.

USA, Russia, China: three power-seekers determine the international order

The second test concerns the resilience of the present world order. Alongside the USA, Russia and China are its most important players. Like the USA, they have men at the helm who are diligently trying to present themselves as absolute rulers: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping (who is very busy trying to place his followers for the upcoming reappointments to key positions in the innermost circle of the Chinese Communist party). The future of the international order will be decided above all by the cooperation or confrontation of these three great powers, and thus of these three power-seekers. All three have already clearly shown that they will not hesitate to push aside the values and rules of the current world order, international law and the interests of other states if these should stand in the way of their interests. President Putin did so by annexing the Crimea and intervening in eastern Ukraine; President Xi by pursuing China’s territorial claims and through military incursions in the South China Sea in open defiance of international law; and President Trump by announcing that he will revoke contractual commitments that the US has made in the past.

The key issue in this large-scale experiment on the resilience of political orders is clearly power. But power to do what? Donald Trump is ostensibly intent on making America great again, to quote his most important campaign slogan. He is also manifestly concerned at all times and above all with Donald Trump – and his entrepreneurial successes. How he intends to use his new-found power, and to what ends, will become clearer in the coming weeks and months. For Vladimir Putin, power appears to be an end in itself, as well as a prerequisite for surviving in a system where politically motivated murders are not unusual. He also seems to be seeking revenge against the West for defeating the USSR in the Cold War and subsequently humiliating Russia. Finally, Xi Jinping wants the Communist Party to retain power and establish the “Chinese Dream”, a technological-materialist dream in which every Chinese person owns a smartphone and China is once again at the centre of the world order: a brave new world under the continued leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

When power is diffuse, the powerful are better able to destroy than create

How will the experiment unfold? We do not know. We can only hope that it will not be by trial and error. There are, however, three prognoses we can make with some confidence. One, this is not a time for strong men, whatever appearances may suggest. Implementing huge projects, such as Xi’s Chinese Dream or the restoration of America’s greatness, requires a level of power that even Putin, Xi and Trump do not command: the most important power-related phenomenon is currently its diffusion, not its concentration. Ever more players are involved in politics, and ever more of them have the right of veto or the ability to block. Every individual, even the most powerful player, thus tends to have ever less power. Second, the distinction between creative and destructive power is becoming increasingly significant, and the differential between these two forms of power increasingly momentous: it is quite easy to destroy, but very difficult to create. This observation qualifies the first. The concentration of power at the very top of the three biggest powers in world politics is not sufficient for any one of them to create and sustain the international political order by itself; any one of them can, however, cause substantial damage, which is what makes the concentration of power so alarming. By contrast, sustainable arrangements of political order require cooperation based on common convictions and a shared vision. Finally, the third observation concerns what one might call the dialectics of politics: its innate tendency towards upheavals, which derives new impulses from destruction and failure and can thus make new approaches possible. This is a glimmer of hope for the great experiment. We should, however, be prepared for quite some turbulence once the railroading methods of power politics get entangled in the complex mesh of diffused power, incomprehensible causal relationships and unexpected side effects. This is true not only for American democracy, but also for Chinese autocracy and Russian plutocracy. Above all, however, it concerns world politics: not so long ago a US President paid dearly for his presumptuous attempts to reshape the Middle East in line with his own ideas.

A German Version of this »Point of View« has been translated into English by Tom Genrich.